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Toronto Maple Leafs First Term Report Card: The Forwards

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It's time for takes. Some students did well...some did not.

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The Leafs wrapped up Game 20 of their season Wednesday with a wild shootout loss to the Devils. Conventional hockey wisdom says you have a good idea of what your team is by American Thanksgiving, so let's take stock. We start today with the forwards.

What follows are grades for each Leafs forward who played more than five games, because I didn't feel like grading Milan Michalek.  I went with a letter grade system, from A+ down to F.  A stat breakdown for each player is included, but the eventual rating is a subjective judgment based on each player compared to his role.

While role is subjective, it's also the only way these grades can make any sense.  It's worth noting that the Leafs have extremely balanced ice-time across their top three lines; I've tried to get an approximate feel for what each player is supposed to be doing in ranking them.

Regarding the stats: the P/60 (points per 60 minutes), CF/60 (shot attempts for per 60 minutes), CA/60 (shot attempts against per 60 minutes), CF% (percentage of shot attempts for team while on the ice), CF% Rel. (how the team does in shot attempts with player on vs. when he's off), and xGF% (expected goals for%) numbers are all 5v5 and score and venue adjusted, care of Corsica.

I also included how each player ranked out of the thirteen forwards in that stat.  Finally, for each player, I also included one other number I thought said something interesting about them.

Here we go.

The Forwards

Auston Matthews: A+


Role: Franchise centre; savior of our hopes and dreams; pathologically boring interview subject; man not hitting a wall

Auston Matthews GP G A P P/60 CF/60 CA/60 CF% CF% Rel. xGF% TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Stat 20 8 8 16 1.95 68.17 55.74 55.02 6.49 55.54 17:25 2:30 0:00
Leaf F Rank 1 1 5 2 5 3 2 1 1 3 1 1 11

One Other Number: In scoring chances for per sixty minutes, adjusted, Auston Matthews is fifth.  In the NHL. And two of the guys ahead of him (Nylander and Gardiner) are teammates.

Evaluation: When we drafted Matthews, the questions were how long it would take him to be played as our 1C, and how long would take him to be a top-tier centre in the NHL.  I was optimistic that both things would happen within a couple of years.

Both things happened immediately.  Notwithstanding his recently-ended goal slump--which was pretty much entirely terrible luck--Auston Matthews has been superhuman.  If you want to nitpick, he (like everyone else on the team) struggles against opposing offences that have set up a cycle.  But in addition to his bonkers offensive numbers, he already leads all of the everyday forwards in CA60, and anyone who watches him can see he's the human embodiment of puck possession.  He is a legitimate threat to follow in the footsteps of Doug Gilmour--both leading the team in points, and winning the Selke one day.

I think the four goals and then the goalless streak have probably skewed perceptions of Matthews in all sorts of different ways.  Look under the surface and--and I can't believe I'm saying this--all the hype about him has been justified.

Best Moment: I know it's too obvious, but what else could it be?

Zach Hyman: B-


Role: Puck retriever; penalty killer; children's book author (really); victim of endless puns

Zach Hyman GP G A P P/60 CF/60 CA/60 CF% CF% Rel. xGF% TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Stat 20 2 3 5 1.15 68.9 59.3 53.75 4.64 56.28 16:27 0:05 2:43
Leaf F Rank 1 9 9 9 10 1 6 2 2 2 4 10 1

One Other Number: Zach Hyman draws more minor penalties than any other Leafs forward except Matt Martin--and unlike Martin, he takes few of them himself.

Evaluation: It's no secret I like a lot of things about Zach Hyman.   I think by the standard of what was expected of him a year ago, his grade would be A+++.  He really is a useful two-way winger, with a dogged style, and every time you see him beat out an icing or scrap for a loose puck, you're reminded why Babcock likes him as much as he does.  He's a good penalty-killing forward, too, being the Leafs go-to guy in that scenario.

But you can't have a first-line left winger on pace for 20 points.

That's the whole thing bringing his grade down, but it's critical.  In Hyman's defence, he's very likely to be more productive at the rate he's getting shots--he may have stone hands, but I doubt he has "shooting 4.8% from point-blank" hands (Hyman's average shot distance is the shortest on the team.)  He also gets no powerplay time at all.  And there's an intuitive logic to playing him with Matthews and Nylander--Hyman goes to the creases and corner and feeds them from behind the net.  If that starts clicking soon, Hyman's role will make more sense.  (More sense is distinct from total sense, though.)

Zach Hyman has shown he's a capable NHL player of the depth variety.  Long-term, he doesn't have the offence to wing two superstars like Matthews and Nylander.  But here's hoping with a little luck, he'll have more than has shown up in his boxcars.  I'm rooting for you, Zach.

Best Moment: This was Matthews' first goal, but it was set up by Zach Hyman doing his Zach Hyman thing: picking up the puck behind the net and throwing it out front.  The best argument for keeping Hyman with Nylander and Matthews would be this happening more often.

William Nylander: A


Role: Offensive zone wizard; defensive zone goblin; off-ice elf impressionist; fourth Lord of the Rings reference to be named later

William Nylander GP G A P P/60 CF/60 CA/60 CF% CF% Rel. xGF% TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Stat 20 6 9 15 1.17 68.21 58.88 53.67 4.5 53.2 16.1 2:25 0:00
Leaf F Rank 1 5 1 5 9 2 5 3 3 5 5 2 11

One Other Number: Nylander easily leads the Leafs in powerplay points, with nine (Matthews is second with six.)

Evaluation: You can run an offence through William Nylander.  He's one of those elegant, super-smooth forwards who seems at times to be in another league from the other players on the ice.  He has a rifle of a wrist shot, and he has excellent instincts for holding the puck that one beat extra that opens up a passing lane or a goalie.  He's the focal point of our powerplay and he's formed a chance-generating machine with Matthews.

Defensively...well, it's no secret Nylander is better in the other team's zone than his own.  At his worst, he can look disengaged in the defensive end, waiting to fly up the ice on a rush.  At the same time, this gets vastly overstated (predictably by nitwit members of the Toronto media.)  Nylander is still a strongly net-positive possession player, and his impact on the game at even strength is equally so.  Maybe long-term he's a centre; maybe long-term he's a RW.  Either way, he's an elite offensive player--and like our other young players, he's only poised to get better.

Best Moment: Nylander's blessing, and occasional curse, is that he makes hockey look too easy.  This assist was one of those times.

Tyler Bozak: B


Role: Complementary offensive centre; faceoff specialist; defensive roadkill; source of deathless blog arguments

Tyler Bozak GP G A P P/60 CF/60 CA/60 CF% CF% Rel. xGF% TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Stat 20 5 9 14 2.83 61.71 64.89 48.74 -2.23 51.74 16:08 2:17 0:06
Leaf F Rank 1 6 1 6 3 7 11 9 9 7 6 4 7

One Other Number: Bozak's on-ice shooting percentage of 13.38% is the highest on the team.  That's goosed his numbers somewhat--but Bozak's own shooting percentage is a little lower than his very high career average.

Evaluation: Ah, Bozak, old friend.  We ought to know what Bozak is by now: a useful offensive opportunist who knows where to go on the ice, and a centre who just can't play defence against tough competition.  Every time I want to write him off (like here), he comes back with a bunch of points.  Mike Babcock has wisely attempted to shelter the JVR-Bozak-Marner line, and he's generally been rewarded.  It's tempting to give all the credit to JVR and Marner, and they deserve a lot of it.  But Bozak has produced at at least a 47-point pace each of the last five seasons, and he's doing it again this year.  Let's admit he's got some value.

At the same time, his defensive limitations are stark, as he bleeds shot attempts against.  His offence is legit, if a little inflated, but his defence is a distinct weak point on this roster, and will be until we can address our centre depth.  xGF% has him as a net positive, and maybe that's the most realistic hope for him.

Best Moment: Here's a star Bozak performance: one in which his linemates got the lion's share of the attention--but Bozak had four points.  Say what you will about him, he pushes the key numbers.

James van Riemsdyk: A


Role: Elite power forward; elite basement resident; guy we're apparently trading for every good RHD in the league; Dutch person

James van Riemsdyk GP G A P P/60 CF/60 CA/60 CF% CF% Rel. xGF% TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Stat 20 8 9 17 3.38 64.5 62.81 50.67 0.33 53.63 15:33 2:17 0:00
Leaf F Rank 1 1 1 1 1 4 10 5 4 4 8 4 11

One Other Number: van Riemsdyk has the highest career-bests in goals and points of anyone on the roster, and he's on pace to break both records.  Shooting percentage caveats aside, it feels like everyone overlooks that mighty quickly.

Evaluation: Sometimes I feel like JVR is the least appreciated star forward in the league (except by Species, of course. [Species - damn right!])  He's big enough to go wherever he wants in the offensive zone, and he has the hands to work magic when he gets there.  If you think goal-scorers of van Riemsdyk's calibre grow on trees -- to the point where you would, say, trade one for a middling RHD -- you're nuts.

JVR and Marner have made very nice running mates, with Marner free to slip around wherever he wants to go and JVR free to finish in style.  While JVR carries the puck more than this might suggest, the synchronicity between the two of them has been very nice to behold.  He's also outstripped his linemates in the shot attempts battle, despite complaints he doesn't use his size enough on defence.  With no preconceptions and looking solely at the numbers, you'd conclude JVR is the straw that stirs the drink on that line.

Best Moment: JVR capped a hat trick with this neat little backhand.  Size and hands, baby.

Mitch Marner: A-


Role: Star playmaking forward; karaoke hero; Calder Trophy winner; too small for the NHL

Mitch Marner GP G A P P/60 CF/60 CA/60 CF% CF% Rel. xGF% TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Stat 20 7 9 16 2.94 61.66 66.81 47.99 -3.44 51.37 16:44 2:19 0:03
Leaf F Rank 1 4 1 2 2 8 13 10 11 8 3 3 9

One Other Number: Mitch Marner is allegedly six feet tall.  No one believes that--but if he's 5'11" or 5'10", he's about the same height as Claude Giroux.  Too small to be a centre my ass.

Evaluation: Marner has arrived.  Doubts about him being able to play in the NHL now appear silly, and the Patrick Kane (on-ice only) comparisons look more apt.  He's evasive, agile, intelligent, and absolutely brilliant to watch.  In the early going, he seems to have outstripped draft peers Dylan Strome and Noah Hanifin, making those who wanted to draft one of those two at 4OA look silly.  (Including me.  I wanted Hanifin.  I was wrong.)

And yet...I'm ranking him narrowly behind Nylander and Matthews.  Why?  Two reasons: one, Marner seems to be benefiting from an on-ice shooting percentage bump; and two, his possession numbers are not great.  I absolve him of most of the responsibility for this because his centre is Tyler Bozak, and the eye test suggests he's actually got the makings of an effective defensive winger.  But there's a risk of falling into a binary trap where all the good things the line does are Marner's doing and the bad things are Bozak's fault, and that's extreme.  "Electric and still learning" may be a fair description of him.

He's so, so good, though, and xGF% likes him better than CF% does.  Given a good two-way centre--or hell, if he becomes one himself--Marner is going to torch this league.

Best Moment:

Nazem Kadri: A


Role: Quality two-way centre; superstar rat; provoker of the "you love him when he's on your team" cliche every time he's mentioned; great contract-signer

Nazem Kadri GP G A P P/60 CF/60 CA/60 CF% CF% Rel. xGF% TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Stat 20 8 7 15 1.87 61.94 61.03 50.37 -0.03 49.66 15:46 2:03 0:02
Leaf F Rank 1 1 6 1 7 6 7 7 6 10 7 6 10

One Other Number: 51.01--the adjusted CF% of Kadri's competition, the toughest of the Leafs' four centres.  Differences in QoC may be slight, but they do exist.

Evaluation: This season feels like the emergence of the fully evolved Nazem Kadri.  If you'd listened to the chatter around him during the Wilson and Carlyle eras, would you have believed that Kadri would be a shutdown centre?  And would you have believed that he'd be pretty decent at it?

You might believe, if you were highly optimistic, he'd be on pace to hit 60 points.  And you could easily believe he was pissing off every opposing centre he ran into.  His penalty-drawing is not quite what it used to be, probably thanks to his reputation.  But in every other respect, Kadri has been a quality two-way centre this year, the kind most teams would love to have, at a price most teams would love to have him for.

If you want to find fault, you can note his middling possession numbers and then quote that old study that suggests differences in QoC tend to be trivial over a full year.  But Kadri and friends are definitely taking the hardest road, and they're doing well.

Best Moment: Kadri's work against Connor McDavid was some of his finest of the year, and this goal was the capstone.

Leo Komarov: B


Role: Power forward who annihilates people; multilingual dressing room presence; netfront player on the second PP unit; piano man

Leo Komarov GP G A P P/60 CF/60 CA/60 CF% CF% Rel. xGF% TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Stat 20 3 5 8 1.21 59.1 61.21 49.09 -1.77 47.18 17:13 1:59 2:06
Leaf F Rank 1 7 7 7 8 10 8 8 8 11 2 7 4

One Other Number: It's contained in the numbers above, but Komarov is the only forward to play regularly on both the powerplay and the penalty kill.  As a result, Komarov has the second-most ice-time among Leaf forwards, even though he's less conventionally skilled than several of them.

Evaluation: Everybody loves Leo, unless you're one of the teams who's lost a player to his sometimes-questionable, always-explosive bodychecking.  After his shooting-percentage jamboree last year, he's fallen back to earth.  His offence is actually not that far down from his prior high.  He seems able to produce 30-40 points sustainably, although whether his physical gifts merit putting him in the crease for the second powerplay unit, I'm not sure.

At even strength, Komarov hasn't totally dazzled, but his ability to do a reasonable job in any situation as a physical, responsible player is to his credit, and ultimately boosts his value.

Best Moment: I've griped here and on other occasions about Komarov on the powerplay, so it's only fair I acknowledge it does occasionally work.  Here Komarov makes a smooth, pivoting pass at the net front to set up Nylander.

I could also have shown one of his billion hits, but you can see those any time Komarov plays.  The man is a wrecking ball.

Connor Brown: B+


Role: Two-way winger; redhead on the rise; probably the best Erie Otters forward ever to be named Connor; our best late pick in recent memory

Connor Brown GP G A P P/60 CF/60 CA/60 CF% CF% Rel. xGF% TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Stat 20 3 5 8 2.13 62.54 61.29 50.5 0.08 52.18 14:03 0:10 2:06
Leaf F Rank 1 7 7 7 4 5 9 6 5 6 9 9 3

One Other Number: Connor Brown was -72 in 2011-12 in junior.  Two years later he was +44.  Plus/minus is meaningless.  Never use it.

Evaluation: Connor Brown is one of those players you like more the more you pay attention.  You can play him in virtually any situation and he'll do a competent job.  He's also the only forward to earn an in-lineup promotion this season, and it was more than deserved.  Once freed from the unpleasant shooting slump of his early season on the fourth line, he's bloomed to produce a few points with the Kadri checking group--though a bunch of them were in one night.

Still, Brown is a tenacious, impressive player, whether streaking up on offence or being the first man back to break up an odd-man rush.  These talents undoubtedly helped earn him his spot on the hard-minutes Kadri line--an impressive compliment for a player it's easy to forget is a 22-year-old rookie.

Best Moment: Not really for the shot, which Reimer should definitely have had, but this sneaky little rush up the right wing is awfully neat.   This was part of Brown's four-point night.

Ben Smith: F


Role: Right-shot faceoffs on the penalty kill; right-shot faceoffs on the penalty kill; right-shot faceoffs on the penalty kill; llik ytlanep eht no sffoecaf tohs-thgir

Ben Smith GP G A P P/60 CF/60 CA/60 CF% CF% Rel. xGF% TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Stat 14 1 1 2 0.92 48.28 66.26 42.15 -8.26 46.94 12:01 0:00 2:13
Leaf F Rank 11 10 12 12 11 13 12 13 13 11 10 12 2

One Other Number: Ben Smith's faceoff percentage on the penalty kill is 57.7%. This is the best of any Leaf who has taken more than one shorthanded draw.  Faceoffs are nice to win on the penalty kill, and the Leafs do not have another natural centre who kills penalties and is unusually good at faceoffs. This is why Ben Smith is here.

Evaluation: I'm so tired of Ben Smith.  He has one really useful skill, and he's bad at everything else.  You can say he doesn't matter all that much given he's our 4C, and in a relative way he doesn't.  But it's a depressingly poor lineup decision to play him over Peter Holland, and we seem to be on the verge of making the decision permanent for the season.

Look: by virtually every metric, Ben Smith is not an NHL player at even strength.  The team produces nothing offensively when he's on the ice and gets slaughtered in shots against.  He's actually middling in scoring chances against at EV, which is virtually his only encouraging stat with the Leafs (he's still awful at SCF% because he has no offence.)  You know who the best of these thirteen forwards is in scoring chances against this year?  Peter Holland.

You could argue these samples are all too small to be fair to either Smith or Holland, but nothing in Smith's career suggests he's better than an AHL centre.  I'm very conscious of the fact that he matters less than other players, and that, to paraphrase one of Katya's favourite lines, you can't expect every guy on the team to have a positive Corsi Rel.  But Ben Smith is far enough underwater that we really ought to expect better than conceding eight or ten minutes a night for a 10% jump in faceoff %.

Best Moment: Sigh, I don't know.  Imagine him winning a faceoff, I guess.  He did score that one goal, but it was pretty much all Nikita Soshnikov (see it below).  At least they played "Bennie and the Jets" after he scored it, which was neat.

Matt Martin: C+


Role: Hitting people with his body; hitting people with his hands; CA60; intangibles

Matt Martin GP G A P P/60 CF/60 CA/60 CF% CF% Rel. xGF% TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Stat 20 1 2 3 0.7 52.19 58.2 47.28 -3.57 50.89 10:01 0:01 1:07
Leaf F Rank 1 10 10 10 13 11 3 11 12 9 12 11 5

One Other Number: Real time stats being pretty shaky grounds for inferences, Matt Martin is nonetheless leading the league in hits this year, with 90.  I can believe that that's approximately true; he sure looks like he hits everything that moves.  How much it's worth is doubtful, or at least it's covered by his CA numbers, but he at least is checking the way he was expected to, I guess.

Evaluation: Let's get this out of the way: Matt Martin will never be worth his contract.  His contract is two and a half times the AAV, and double the length, of what I would've wanted to pay him on my most generous day.  If we evaluate him on that scale, he'll always fail.

The other thing is that some of the things in the Matt Martin Experience are not things I'd necessarily want to pay for, namely fighting (which is fun but doesn't really make much difference) and protection (which I would pay for if I thought Matt Martin provided it, but I don't.)  There's also his general good character, which I hear is pretty swell, but which I can't know about directly and teams often overpay for.  But once you ignore, he's not that far from what he was supposed to be.

Matt Martin produces offence like a low-end 12th forward, which is pretty bad, and he's been slightly worse than even that this year.  But he also has maintained his impressive CA from his time with the Islanders, and considering his linemates it still stands out as an impressive strength. His CF% is less than dazzling, but some of that is very likely due to being played with Corsi pit Ben Smith--his line with Holland and Brown had excellent Corsi in a tiny sample.  Martin's scoring chance against numbers are also good and he's been a decent penalty killer.  His very limited offensive ability means you can't reasonably play him up the lineup, but a fourth line that can get the better of the expected goals battle is pretty swell.  (By definition most fourth lines are supposed to lose that battle, or they wouldn't be fourth lines.)  Arvind and I said this while condemning his contract, and I'll say it again: a good team can have Matt Martin as its twelfth forward.  I suspect if he had a somewhat better 4C, his numbers would move in a way that I'd grade him a little higher.

Best Moment: Look at that big ol' grin.

I also could have used video of him trolling Vancouver's Derek Dorsett to the point he tried to rush Martin on the Leafs bench, and then got stuffed into the tunnel by a referee.  This didn't do anything directly productive, but it was hilarious.

Nikita Soshnikov: C+


Role: Energy forward; human torpedo; winger ready to move up the lineup; someone NNU doesn't want to murder

Nikita Soshnikov GP G A P P/60 CF/60 CA/60 CF% CF% Rel. xGF% TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Stat 11 1 2 3 1.88 48.37 58.66 45.19 -2.48 46.25 9:04 0:00 0:04
Leaf F Rank 12 10 10 10 6 12 4 12 10 13 13 12 8

One Other Number: Both of Sosh's assists were primary assists, and they were on the only goals Ben Smith and Matt Martin have scored this year.

Evaluation: I'll tell you right now, this is the grade I am least happy with.  Soshnikov is much better than this, I firmly believe.  He was great for the Marlies, he was great for the Leafs in his audition last year, he's looked great this year.  He has legitimate offensive ability, unlike his two linemates, who are, respectively, at and below the low-end of even fourth line offensive production.

At the same time, I wouldn't accept the eye test totally outweighing the numbers with a player I didn't like, so I shouldn't accept it with one I do.  It's easy enough to blame Ben Smith once again (and believe me, I do), but I can't just imagine the numbers I would like to believe Sosh would put up in a better situation.  I can point to his shot-out-of-a-cannon forechecking, his surprising shot, his offensive instincts that are almost totally wasted.  And from what Babcock has said, if/when there's a wing opening due to injury, Sosh is the obvious candidate to fill it almost no matter who it is.  But until then...sigh...C+.

Best Moment: It's Ben Smith's goal, but it's Soshnikov's play.

Peter Holland: B+

Depth C

Role: His was not to make reply/His was not to reason why/into the pressbox/rode Peter Holland.

Peter Holland GP G A P P/60 CF/60 CA/60 CF% CF% Rel. xGF% TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Stat 7 0 1 1 0.92 60.96 54.3 52.89 -1.29 57.93 10:52 0:27 0:46
Leaf F Rank 3 13 12 13 11 9 1 4 7 1 11 8 6

One Other Number: In five billion years, the Sun will consume the Earth and all living things will die.

Evaluation: Peter Holland had a shooting percentage slump to begin this year, and Peter Holland is not a good faceoff man.  That was apparently enough to condemn Holland to an only briefly interrupted stretch in the pressbox.  In some practices, he's actually stood in as Frank Corrado's defence partner.  Michael Corleone gives the kiss of death more subtly than that.

Look, Holland drives play (he's done it in the past, I'm not just arguing from his seven games this year.)  He doesn't score as much as he should, but he scores a little, and certainly enough to be a solid 4C.  I appreciate that there's a specific hole Ben Smith is better-shaped for.  But at actually playing hockey, it's no contest, and the Leafs aren't a team who ought to throw away centre depth.  He may not be all that exciting, and the Leafs haven't exactly shown they're attached to him.  But somebody ought to give Peter Holland a shot.

Best Moment: Let's imagine Holland sitting back with a beer and relaxing or something.  I wish you well, here or elsewhere, Peter.

The Forwards Overall: B+

It may seem like I'm being generous, but really, we've been treated to a spectacular offensive team.  In pretty much every underlying offensive number, the Leafs are the most potent even-strength offence in hockey thus far.  First in CF60, first in xGF60, first in scoring chances per 60.  They're third in goals per game;  .01 of a GPG behind Columbus, and the first-place team (the New York Rangers) is riding a shooting percentage spike for the ages.  And Toronto is top 10 on the powerplay, too.  Not all the credit for that goes to the forwards, but they get a hell of a lot.  They've produced.

Defensively, there's obviously more to be desired.  We've all seen the shifts where the Leafs just get stuck in their own end, or those terrifying odd-man rushes they give up all the time.  The forwards own some of that too.  But on net, every member of the Leafs' top nine is making positive contributions right now.  It's not perfect and we want it to keep improving, but this forward group can go places.

In Part Two I'll look at the defence, goaltending, and Mike Babcock; and we'll see if I can invent a grade lower than F for Matt Hunwick.